The average New Jack Swing chanteuse would have killed for a voice like that of Greenwich Village-raised Amel Larrieux, who could rise from a sweet Cabbage Patch Doll coo to a rich, ululating soprano in the course of a couple bars. Yet in neither her chart-hitting duo Groove Theory nor her acid-jazz-oriented early solo efforts did Larrieux really get to prove she had the chops to match a fascinating pedigree. Born to bohemian parents (her mother was a professor and dance critic) and raised among jazz, gospel, hip-hop, Middle Eastern, Indian, and African musicians in an area that had long internalized the forces of hipsterification, Larrieux always had the potential to be far more interesting than the average American Idol winner. While she improved by leaps and bounds on her last three solo albums — particularly the 2006 release Morning, which suffered only from the ponderous nature of the song composition — this year’s Lovely Standards has Larrieux really taking herself seriously as what many critics would call a “crossover” artist (i.e., someone who had to move beyond popular R&B because the medium just wasn’t growing fast enough for her).
With unique arrangements of ten canonical tunes by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Duke Ellington, and Paul Francis Webster, among others, Lovely Standards allows Larrieux to shore up classical conceptions of musicianship and pay homage to the jazz lineage that made her. She often comes across as an eager pupil, emulating the cutesy waifishness of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald in songs with appropriately warbling titles, such as “If I Were a Bell” and “Something Wonderful.” But she also adds modern adornments — like the bluesy vibrato trills and ad-libbed coloratura wail in “I Like the Sunrise” — that allow her to seize each tune and make it totally her own. By the end of Lovely Standards it’s obvious that if any artist could redirect a large swath of the hip-hop generation back to its jazz forebears, Amel Larrieux is the one.